When I go up into the mountains, I’m used to being afforded magnificent views of alpine meadows filled with wildflowers, crystal-clear mountain streams, glaciers tucked under the shoulders of high valleys, stratified ridges arcing into the sky, and views so far into the distance one can sense the curvature of earth.
But on August 22, as I carefully climbed my way toward one of the high summits of Eastern Olympic National Park, the solace of the mountains eluded me due to an ominous sign. The view east – toward what has now officially become the largest complex of wildfires in history for Washington State, where over one-quarter million acres have burned – was dominated by a large, greyish-white plume of smoke that stretched as far north and south as I could see.
At first it appeared as a large storm cloud layer, which was confusing given that the weather-folk had called for a stable high-pressure ridge over western Washington through the weekend. But as I continued through the morning, the large white wall neared and slowly began enveloping the entire eastern mountains of the Olympics, and my eyes began to burn as I smelled the smoke.
By the time I reached the summit of my climb, the view south was already obscured by the smoke as it began to fully infiltrate Olympic National Park.
John Muir once wrote, “I must break away and get into the mountains to learn the news.” Today, given we are well along into abrupt anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), Muir’s quote has taken on an entirely new meaning, as the convulsions wracking the planet are starkly clear when we venture out into nature.
Back home after my climb, the wildfires were all over the news. Several firefighters had died recently while battling the blazes in eastern Washington, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data show how over half the entire country was covered in wildfire smoke generated by literally hundreds of fires, and the smoke was bad enough in Seattle to have triggered health alerts.
The US is now officially in the worst wildfire season in its history, as almost 7.5 million acres across the country have burned up since spring.
Articles about ACD’s impacts are now being published in more mainstream outlets, carrying titles that include verbiage like “the point of no return,” and it is high time for that, given what we are witnessing.
A recently published study by the UK-US Taskforce on Extreme Weather and Global Food System Reliance revealed that “major shocks” to worldwide food production will become at least three times more likely within the next 25 years due to increasingly extreme weather events generated by ACD. One of the coauthors of the report warned of a “very frightening” future due to the synthesis of ACD and food demands from a constantly growing global population.
Meanwhile, July officially became the hottest month ever recorded on the planet, setting 2015 on course to easily become the hottest year ever recorded.
This month’s dispatch is replete with evidence of our growing crisis, including record-breaking amounts of ice being released from Greenland, more species under threat of extinction, and millions of acres of the planet burning up in wildfires across North America alone.
A trove of papers recently released in the journal Science have warned that the planet’s forests are all under major threat of being annihilated, due to the ever-expanding human footprint, coupled with ACD. The introduction to the studies reads: “These papers document how humans have fundamentally altered forests across the globe and warn of potential broad-scale future declines in forest health, given increased demand for land and forest products combined with rapid climate change.”
Speaking of which, another recent report, this one coming from the Center for Global Development, showed that the planet is on a trajectory to lose an amount of tropical forest land equivalent to the size of India by 2050.
Meanwhile, geologists with the US Geological Survey and researchers from the University of Vermont recently showed that Washington DC is, quite literally, sinking into the sea. “It’s ironic that the nation’s capital – the place least responsive to the dangers of climate change – is sitting in one of the worst spots it could be,” senior author of the paper, Paul Bierman, said. “Will the Congress just sit there with their feet getting ever wetter?”
At the moment, the answer to his question is obvious: The lawmakers that frequent our capital city are making no bold moves to address that city’s flooded future.
Food production, as aforementioned, is being dramatically undermined by ACD. In Nigeria, the country’s ability to feed itself is rapidly diminishing due to higher temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns. At least half the farmers there had been unable to even plant their crops at the time of this writing.
Animal species continue to bear the brunt of ACD all over the globe as well.
A recent study showed that in the UK, ACD is generating severe droughts that have placed several species of butterflies there at risk of extinction.
Another report showed how a disease spreading rapidly across the planet’s tadpole populations is now threatening the global frog population. Scientists who authored the report warn that this is further evidence of the sixth great extinction event the earth is now experiencing.
Another dismaying development: The ever-shrinking area of sea ice is deleteriously impacting the Arctic’s walrus population. This season could see another dramatic beaching event like that of last summer, in which 35,000 walruses dragged themselves out of the sea and onto a beach due to lack of sea ice.
Meanwhile, the ongoing drought in California has caused an “emergency situation” for trees in that state, as lack of water is causing unprecedented die-offs. The drought there is also wiping out several of the native fish populations, of which many are expected to disappear within the next two years if the drought persists.
Lastly in this section, unprecedented heat coupled with an intense drought has caused “glacial outbursts” on Washington State’s Mount Rainier. “Outbursts” occur when large pools of ice-melt form within the glaciers, then plunge from within the glacier, sending torrents of silt-filled water, boulders and trees down the slopes of the mountain, wiping out anything in its path.
While these outbursts have happened periodically throughout history, they are expected to increase in both frequency and severity as ACD progresses.
As usual, circumstances on the water front continue to worsen around the planet.
In the Pacific Northwestern region of the US, over a quarter million sockeye salmon heading up the Columbia River have either died or are in the process of dying due to warmer water temperatures. Biologists warn that at least half of this year’s returning fish will be wiped out, and ultimately as much as 80 percent of the total fish population could perish. Both Oregon and Washington states have already instituted closures of sport fishing due to the warmer waters and drought conditions persisting in both states.
In the Eastern Pacific Ocean, a giant bloom of toxic algae that is a threat to the health of both ocean species and humans alike spans from southern California all the way up to Alaska. Researchers are linking the size and intensity of the bloom to ACD. The bloom is already killing off sea lions that inhabit the coast and is still not showing signs of going away. Researchers said it was the largest bloom they had ever seen.
A report showed how ACD is in the process of rapidly reversing a natural phenomenon of 1,800 years of ocean cooling, while another study revealed that ocean acidification will continue and likely worsen, even if carbon sequestration and cleanup efforts were to begin in an immediate and dramatic fashion.
Back on land, droughts around the globe continue to make headlines.
One in Puerto Rico, that continues to worsen, has caused that country’s government to extend its dramatic water rationing measures, which have now been ongoing for weeks.
A study published in Geophysical Research Letters unequivocally linked California’s severe drought to ACD, saying that ACD has already “substantially increased” both the frequency and intensity of future droughts.
More news around the California drought emerged, showing that the river that runs through San Jose, the 10th largest city in the US, has dried up completely, severely harming fish and wildlife dependent on the water for their survival.
NASA released findings showing that California’s Central Valley, where the bulk of all the farming in the state takes place, is literally sinking, due to how much groundwater is being drawn out to compensate for the drought conditions. It is yet another destructive feedback loop: ACD has caused the drought to be far more severe than normal, which has caused humans to over-pump groundwater, leading to the sinking of the land.
The world’s glaciers are in peril. A disturbing report has shown that they have shrunk to their lowest levels ever witnessed in the history of record-keeping. They are melting at an accelerating rate – two to three times faster than the 20th century average melt rate.
As if to punctuate the findings of the report, the world’s fastest-melting glaciers, located in Greenland, recently lost the largest amount of ice on record in just a 48-hour period.
As a result of the incredible melting rates of glaciers, snowpack and ice fields around the globe, sea levels are now rising faster than ever.
Thus, as recently released research shows, global communities and cities located on river deltas – which includes over a quarter of a billion people – are at risk and will have to relocate.
Given the extensive record-breaking drought that has afflicted most of the western US, the fact that this summer’s fire season came in with a roar came as little surprise. Hardly halfway through the summer, fires across California, Washington, Colorado and in Glacier National Park in Montana were making headlines.
By early August, nearly 10,000 firefighters in California alone were battling at least 20 wildfires that had already forced more than 13,000 people to evacuate their homes.
Shortly thereafter, thousands of wildfires were raging across drought-plagued California, and before the middle of the month, a staggering 300,000 new acres were burning each day up in Alaska, where fires had scorched over 6 million acres thus far in the year, and hundreds of fires continued to burn. That makes this year already the second-largest wildfire season in Alaska’s history, with more of the summer remaining.
Reports have emerged warning of the impact of the fires upon Alaska’s permafrost: They have removed millions of acres of the tundra and forest that previously protected the frozen ground.
In early August, the US Forest Service announced that for the first time in the history of that department, it needed to spend over half of its entire budget on fighting wildfires.
Despite this, given the record-breaking drought conditions across the west, large numbers of the fires were left to burn out of control, due to high winds, dry conditions, and lack of fire-fighting capabilities and resources.
In case anyone had any doubt about how hot the planet is already becoming, the Iranian city of Bandar Mahshahr experienced a heat index of 165 degrees in August, nearly setting a world record for heat index measurements, which factor in humidity along with temperature.
In July, incredibly hot temperatures in Tajikistan caused a rapid melting of glaciers, which triggered flooding and mudslides that generated nearly 1,000 ACD refugees.
Meanwhile, across the Middle East in August, more than 20 people died and nearly 100 had to be hospitalized due to incinerating heat that baked the region, along with intense humidity levels. Basra, Iraq, saw 123 degrees, and the Iraqi government had to instate a four-day “holiday” so people wouldn’t feel obliged to work in the stifling heat.
Lastly in this section, a recent report stated that Texas will likely see a dramatic escalation in heat-related deaths and coastal extreme storm-related losses in the upcoming decades due to escalating ACD impacts.
Denial and Reality
There is never a dull moment in the “Denial and Reality” section.
Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton’s stated plan to address abrupt ACD, which amounts to federal subsidies for solar panels, was immediately labeled as “silly” in early August, just after Clinton’s plan was announced, by leading climate scientist James Hansen, who headed NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies for more than three decades.
“You cannot solve the problem without a fundamental change, and that means you have to make the price of fossil fuels honest, “Hansen said of her plan. “Subsidizing solar panels is not going to solve the problem.”
During a recent forum, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz went on the record expressing full-on denial of ACD, saying that the debate about ACD was a “device” used by liberals to appeal to “environmentalist billionaires and their campaign donations.”
On another front, builders in San Francisco are moving forward with plans to construct major bay-front developments of office space and homes worth more than $21 billion, in areas that are extremely susceptible to flooding – despite dire warnings of imminent sea-level rise.
On the bad news front for the deniers, however, a recent study showed there is absolutely no link between sunspot activity and ACD … a fabricated argument the deniers enjoy trotting out to try to “disprove” reality.
More bad news for the deniers comes, once again, from the Pope, who set up an annual Catholic Church “day of care” for the environment. The Pope said the day would be a chance for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to “thank God for the wonderful handiwork which he has entrusted to our care, and to implore his help for the protection of creation as well as his pardon for the sins committed against the world in which we live.”
And Catholics aren’t the only faith leaders working to do something to address ACD.
Islamic religious and environmental leaders from around the world recently issued a call to rich countries, along with those that are oil producers, to end all fossil fuel use by 2050 and to begin rapidly ramping up the institution and use of renewable energy sources.
The Islamic leadership, which issued “The Islamic Climate Declaration,” said the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims have “a religious duty to fight climate change.”
The final blow to ACD deniers in this month’s dispatch comes from none other than the US Department of Defense, which issued a report to Congress that said that ACD poses a “present security threat” that is not only a “long-term risk,” but poses immediate short-term threats as well.